How to date a normal drinker

It’s no secret that I hate parties. I do, however, routinely make exceptions for pity parties. While I don’t typically tolerate any event that lasts more than two hours, I once threw a pity party that lasted an entire year!

I like to call that particular party: “Dating a normal drinker.”

I don’t call it a pity party because it wasn’t fun; all in all, it was a good relationship. I call it a pity party because, while dating someone who drank normally, I carved out lots and lots of time to feel sorry for myself.

The other day, someone asked me if it’s possible for someone in recovery to date someone who drinks. While my current partner doesn’t drink at all (God bless him), my first thought was absolutely. I have sufficient experience dating a normal drinker to consider myself an expert. (I’ve also been known to prematurely declare expertise.)

With that in mind, I’ve assembled a bit of a party-planning guide:

Dating a normal drinker (and throwing a bad-ass pity party) in

10 easy steps!

1. Hire a party planner.

This one is already done! You hired me. Weird choice, but okay.

2. Pick a date.

Be mindful about timing. Although I dated casually a month or two into sobriety, my first serious sober relationship began about 11 months in. By that time, I could hold it together for the length of a standard date.

3. Pick another date.

But this time, the human kind. For me, a sober crush is way different than a drunk one. When sober, having a crush makes me nervous and a little antisocial. (Life itself has been known to make me that way.) If you want to know who I’m crushing on, I’ll give you a hint: it’s one of 8 billion people with whom I’m not making eye contact. If I say something to him that could reasonably be considered "rude," that’s your second clue.

What can I say? I've got game.

4. Create an (emotional) budget.

Being sober in a relationship gets expensive. (Emotionally, I mean. Financially, you actually save a ton.) But lucky for you, as of embarrassingly recently, I’ve learned how to budget. (Financially, I mean. Emotionally, not so much.)

Here’s what I mean by an emotional budget: to the best of your ability, figure out how much you are willing to “spend” on dating a normal drinker. Emotionally, what can you invest? How much additional effort does it take for you to date someone who goes out to bars on weekends or orders a beer at restaurants?

If the fact that he can drink and you can't bums you out several times per week, that might be too much. But if it bums you out only once a month (perhaps with suspicious precision), you might be in the clear. If you're doing the work of recovery, those moments become fewer and farther between.

5. Make a guest list.

When I first started dating a normal drinker, input from other normal drinkers was vital.

This is why: I literally lack a theory of mind when it comes to “normies.” I can no better imagine what it’s like to be a normal drinker than to be a killer whale (soaking wet, I bet).

The normies on my guest list were great for responding to my insecurities. I would say things like, What if he'd prefer a girl who could drink with him?! And they'd say things like, Then he’d be a dating a girl who could drink with him. Genius.

6. Buy a lot of food. (More than you think you need.)

If you’re dating a normal drinker, it’s best if he’s a foodie. This will give you something to gluttonously bond over in the absence of alcohol.

By "foodie," I don't mean someone who is attracted to lavish gastronomic experiences and exotic cuisines. Please, God, No. I mean Oreos.

7. Plan plenty of icebreakers.

Nothing makes me want to leave a social event like, erm, the start of a social event. And nothing signals the start of a social event like icebreakers.

But in the case of sober dating, icebreakers are good. It takes longer to get comfortable. When I drank, physical intimacy was facilitated by alcohol. Without alcohol, that slows down. You get to know each other first.

BUT: in the least sex-shamey way possible, isn’t that kind of cool? Like, you start really being thoughtful about how you approach another human. You start asking yourself questions like, What do I actually want? What are the implications? If you’re serious about this person, you’ve got time. If you're super serious, you might even have forever.

8. Followed by plenty of activities.

A party with pre-planned activities is a party I can tolerate 30% longer. As a sober person, I’m always relieved when “just kinda hanging out” is not the only thing on the agenda.

The same thing goes for dating in sobriety: because the world’s most obvious and least effortful activity is off the table (i.e., drinking), you’ll need to be creative.

When I first dated a normal drinker, he suggested three excellent non-drinking activities for our first date. (I mean, his first idea was yoga, but the other two were good.) In a culture where "meeting for a drink" is standard, it meant a lot to see someone easily deviate on my behalf. Maybe I'm not such a buzz-kill, after all.

9. Let your guests leave (and attend other parties).

Don’t take it personally when your normal drinker partner wants to do normal drinker activities (including, um, drink normally.) And don't take it personally when those activities don't involve you.

There were times when I felt nervous or insecure about the fact that I wasn't going out with him. Because I couldn't imagine anything more fun than drinking, it stood to reason that he must be having infinitely more fun with others than he could with me.

Again: if that were the case, he would literally just date someone else. When you lack a theory of mind for normal drinkers, the best evidence is their behavior. (Actually, scratch that: the best evidence is always behavior.)

10. Attend other parties yourself.

This one is probably most important.

My favorite thinker when it comes to relationships, Esther Perel, reminds us that we now expect from our partners what we previously got from entire communities. We tend to think that our partners should be able to meet all of our needs. Inevitably, they fall short. They were never meant to replace a village.

In relationships, I place a high purview on being understood. It's perhaps the most important thing to me. It has taken time for me to realize that, while I can and should look for understanding from my partner in certain ways, a non-alcoholic will never understand my alcoholism. I have a recovery community for just that reason. In short: I attend other parties.